When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, many Ukrainians took shelter underground for days and even weeks from constant bombardments and fighting.
Yesterday, Russia hit at least 11 Ukrainian cities with missiles in its broadest aerial assault against civilians since the invasion’s early days. But even amid destruction, many people sheltered for only a few hours. Some quickly went back to their lives. As my colleague Megan Specia, a Times foreign correspondent, left a shelter in the capital of Kyiv, she saw residents walking dogs and riding electric scooters.
In the northeastern city of Kharkiv, which has seen more bombardments than Kyiv, residents shifted to war footing and stocked up on canned food, gas and drinking water. Yet they also entertained themselves at the Typsy Cherry, a local bar. “The mood was cheerful,” its owner, Vladyslav Pyvovar, told The Times. “People drank, had fun and wondered when the electricity will resume.” (Power came back hours later.)
Russia’s latest strikes inflicted significant damage: They killed at least 14 people and wounded 89 others, destroyed vital infrastructure and caused power failures. They also shattered a relative sense of calm that had allowed Ukrainians in parts of the country to go back to work, school and entertainment venues in recent weeks. (Here’s a snapshot of the destruction in different parts of the country.)
But if Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, wanted to crush Ukrainians’ morale, he failed, as their resilience after the strikes showed. The attacks may have even backfired, strengthening Ukrainians’ resolve to defeat and punish Russia. “People are really resolute here,” Megan said. “It has been really striking to me.”
The missile assaults also seem unlikely to produce battlefield gains, experts said. “I don’t think they will have a strategic impact,” Konrad Muzyka, a military analyst for Rochan Consulting, told The Times, “unless we’re talking about increasing morale on the Ukrainian side and maybe speeding up some deliveries of military equipment from the West.”
Putin said that the strikes were revenge for an explosion on Saturday that partially destroyed Russia’s only bridge to Crimea. The bridge attack was a strategic victory for Ukraine, straining one of Russia’s supply lines to the battlefield. It was also a symbolic one, demonstrating that Ukraine can strike deep in Russia-occupied territory and at a target that is of personal importance to Putin.
The bridge blast punctuated weeks of Russian losses on the battlefield: Ukrainian troops have taken back more than 1,200 square miles of territory in the east and south since late September. The recent Russian setbacks have prompted even some of Putin’s supporters to criticize him and the war effort. Yesterday’s missile strikes appeared to be a response to those critics, some analysts said.
As devastating as Russia’s attacks were — a playground was among the sites hit — they also exposed Putin’s weaknesses. He is not able to mount a counteroffensive to seize territory in Ukraine right now. The war has depleted Russian forces, with estimates of tens of thousands of troops killed. Western sanctions have damaged Russia’s ability to restock the military equipment it has used and lost on the battlefield, particularly high-end weapons. Ukraine’s recent advances have worsened these problems.
Putin has called a draft to rebuild Russian forces, but training and deploying the soldiers will take months, potentially until spring. So Putin has resorted to missile strikes — which do little to help Russia gain territory — to put Ukraine “in a state of constant unease in an effort to keep the Ukrainian economy from functioning,” said my colleague Michael Schwirtz, a Times correspondent reporting from Kyiv.
Putin’s broader gamble is that he can wait out Ukrainian and Western resolve. He seems to believe that Ukrainians will eventually falter under the constant pressure of war, and that Western support for Ukraine will collapse as energy prices rise this winter.
But Putin has consistently underestimated Ukraine’s and the West’s willpower. “Everyone I have spoken to — both in the U.S. and Ukraine — really doubt Putin can break morale,” said my colleague Julian Barnes, who covers national security for The Times. “That doesn’t mean he won’t try. But it is a wasted effort.”
More from Ukraine
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